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Music Review: “Hello” by Adele

Adele Album 25Yesterday, in an act of great injustice, the federal government exonerated a corrupt chief tax collector who perpetrated the singling out of Americans for persecution based on their ideas. Yesterday is also the day Adele released her new single, “Hello”.

The haunting song, written by Adele with Greg Kurstin, masterfully expresses emotions which correspond to what I think are predominant feelings of our times. This lament of one’s past captures what it feels like to want to cry out against what’s gone wrong in the world.

The pared down production, simplicity and restrained power of her voice, which wails about being on the outside, give the melancholy tune an undeniable power. It’s superficially about a former lover, yet the song from Adele’s forthcoming album, 25, is an introspection. It’s as though she’s reflecting upon herself, a sense affirmed by Xavier Dolan’s dramatic, black and white, retro music video co-starring the perfectly cast, boyish Tristan Wilds (watch the video here).

The sparse “Hello” loops a melody in Adele’s vocals featuring whispers of piano, background vocals, electronica, strings, percussion and some chillingly timed bells. The effect is a sense of distance, loss and detachment laced with an eerie foreboding; the lyric suggests that the days are numbered. But this tune, as with In the Lonely Hour by Sam Smith, does not wallow in self-pity, pain and anguish. “Hello”—and this is why I think it reflects modern frustration, troubles and hardship—is a plaintive, wounded howl at the way things are and the way things are going. An undercurrent of struggle and strength in Adele’s soulful voice suggests that the singer has not given up. Musically, vocally and lyrically, there is no hint of defeatism; there is a sense of purge in her pleading acknowledgement of the past. Adele’s vocals do not overpower—she sings more like Whitney Houston than like Jennifer Hudson screaming in Dreamgirls—which serves the tune’s theme. It begins as a greeting and becomes an attempt to admit, fix and right what is wrong.

That “Hello” comes in a week of historic victories for corruption in American government—as one of America’s most alarming income tax scandals goes unchecked and unbalanced and one of the most explicit attacks on free speech, when the government blamed an Islamic terrorist attack on September 11 on a movie, with evidence that the secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) knew it was not caused by a movie but said so anyway, goes unpunished—is, of course, coincidental.

I know that a pop song can mean more than the song. It can reflect and define the times. A song well done captures a mood or sensibility. The youthful weariness of “Hello”, which, like its title, is a greeting girded by benevolence, erupts in a wail at the way things are and the way things are going. “Hello” may entirely endure for its hook, ability and production. It yearns for a past “when we were younger and free” and cries out for better days knowing that “at least I can say that I’ve tried.” In the most basic sense, it’s a song about losing one’s love. In a deeper sense, it could be a song about losing one’s civilization, down to the last lyric that it doesn’t seem to matter anymore—imbued with the sense that it’s the only thing that matters anymore.

Movie Review: New York, New York (1977)

NYNYPosterNew York, New York is director Martin Scorsese’s flawed and haunting story in musically-pegged pictures centering upon two artists. Robert De Niro (Little Fockers, Hugo, Last Vegas) portrays a narcissistic saxophonist who is both wild and talented and totally grating. Liza Minnelli (Cabaret, Arthur) plays a singer. They meet after World War 2 ends as newspaper headlines proclaim victory over the “Japs” and New York City erupts in celebration, tossing swastika-emblazoned flags around in mockery of the vanquished Nazis. This is prelude to the film’s sense of foreboding that postwar elation masks deeper wounds from a world at war.

The 1977 movie, released at the height of Minnelli’s and De Niro’s careers as Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull, The Departed) was rising, is like an overlong, epic poem to the artistic spirit of youth. Minnelli had survived her mother’s maudlin end of life, had a meteoric hit in Cabaret (1972) and De Niro had registered as an up and coming ethnic actor among the new, vulgar Hollywood types—Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino—in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York was supposed to be huge.

It’s both easy to see why it bombed and why it might have been a hit.

The United Artists movie is grand, with a score by Cabaret and Chicago composers Kander and Ebb, cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Mask) and the producer of Oscar’s Best Picture for 1976, Rocky. But it is manic, disjointed and too broad like most Scorsese pictures and the De Niro character, Jimmy Doyle, in particular, is excessive. Jimmy is the prototypical musician, a stand-in for every artist, especially the male artist. He is charming, good-looking, talented and all kinds of bad news waiting to happen. But in an instant from a stair step, Jimmy the hustler sees a beautiful couple dancing under the elevated train and catches a glimpse of the romantic and musical in life. He spots the couple in movement and light and it’s like a work of art in motion. Such a sight could heal whatever wounds he bears. In any case, he wants the life he imagines he sees.

In Francine Evans (Minnelli), he goes after it. She’s initially impervious to his dimpled, gleaming charm, so it’s clear that wide-eyed Francine is different than the other girls he sets for conquest. All Jimmy wants in life, and he tells it to Francine, is music, money and sex, pretty much in that order. Francine concurs, finally, after meeting cute in a nightclub played by an orchestra, then in a taxi cab and, spontaneously, again at an audition where the hothead sax player is prone to pop off. What propels New York, New York is its sharp capture of the dance, tension and conflict of two people—two artistic people—in love. For over two hours, it is enveloping, aching and bittersweet.

Naming the romance falls neatly to Francine, who observes that “one of the nicest things in the world is waking up knowing someone loves you.” Minnelli shines in the role. It’s really her movie.

All of this happens (when the shows aren’t on the road) in New York, amid musical bandstands and set pieces, moods and magnificence in jazz, from Harlem to the recording scene. Everyone is surrounded by paintings, songs and instruments, immersed in the hard work of making art, with writers, musicians and other attendants that make up show business. New York, New York depicts the musician’s madcap life in snowbound marriage proposals, greedy kisses in the rain and the ever competitive drive to perform and connect with bandmates, audience and material. It’s all there and it’s tethered to whether Jimmy and Francine can make and love each other and the life.

A drunken fight ensues and, in the De Niro character’s denouement, the reality strikes a major chord. For Minnelli’s Francine, she sees herself in her eyes for the first time to the strings of jazz guitar. The grand finale plays to Minnelli’s best Kander and Ebb songs including the megahit “New York, New York”, written for this thoughtful, stylish movie, proving what her stage and television audiences already knew about this powerhouse entertainer who refuses to fall down. In Mr. Scorsese’s story-within-a-story-within-a-storybook ending, with Liza playing a moviehouse usherette, the artist integrates with the art, this time in reality. So, while New York, New York presents a false dichotomy between the romantic and the realistic, and it is tedious in stretches, it deals in grand notions and ideals in music and pictures. Much of the movie is striking and seeing Liza Minnelli put on the show toward the end still packs a wallop as big, grand and fabulous as New York City.

Martin Scorsese’s movie about making money while making music and making love is mixed with real power and insight.

Movie Review: Amy

AmyPosterThe story of Amy Winehouse, the “North London Jewish girl” who was a jazz singer before she became a pop star and spun out in a drug-induced death in 2011 at the age of 27, is well told in Amy, director Asif Kapadia’s heartbreaking documentary. A single human life is precious, indeed, and this is what makes Amy so powerful. Whatever the cynics and people who relish with contempt blaming those who destroy themselves, this 2-hour film stands as a testament against letting life go easily, cynically and without examination.

Here, in Winehouse’s own words, with unseen archival footage and unheard tracks, is her short life story. In the telling and showing, Kapadia captures a talented woman of her self-loathing generation who came of age and fame in the digital era when a media feeding frenzy could hasten one’s demise faster than, say, Princess Diana. If you primarily want to blame Elvis, Marilyn, Whitney and others such as Michael Jackson for their own deaths, don’t see Amy. If you want to see how an artist comes undone with help from today’s culture and understand how to intervene, mitigate and stop the selflessness, Amy, whether or not you’re a fan of her music, is as simple and accessible as its title suggests.

The seeds of talent and self-sacrifice were planted in the beginning, and this is documentary, not psychodrama, so definitive answers are not forthcoming. But fellow Brit and Londoner Kapadia, who was a casual fan and lived near Winehouse in the lowest days, is moved by the desire to know what happened. Amy is journalistic, with facts laid bare through research aligned with numerous audio interviews that took him three years to obtain and record.

Clearly, the young child of divorce, who went bad when she was nine years old by her account, was damaged and derailed early in life. She made bad choices. But she was also at the mercy of parents, who both survive her and participate in the film, who did not establish boundaries. Amy goes from her home movies to club footage and recording sessions—from self-made success in Camden to self-made disaster in Belgrade—and, in the pictures and what happens in them, one can see that the petite, big-haired, pierced and painted Winehouse was also sucked into the death spiral by today’s lowest parasites every time she seemed ready to go straight.

Amy is about Amy to the extent that’s possible. Whether showing her as a girl singing “Happy Birthday” and “Moon River” in the opening frames to her jazz lament about a man not acting like a man, her retro hit “Rehab” and later stylings by the guitarist, singer and songwriter, including works with rock, pop and rap acts, the evidence that she could create meaningful music is on full display. Kapadia thankfully offers lyrics and subtitles, too. Intermingled throughout her ascent to stardom is the sleazy lifestyle, which began as a daytime indulgence in marijuana and continued with a lifelong dependence on alcohol, sex and drugs, including those prescribed for her depression and heroin, crack cocaine and nicotine. Add what should be obvious in the form of her eating disorder (bulimia) and Amy is an inked up poison pill. As rapper Mos Def puts it “she was fast with a blue joke, could drink anyone under the table and she sure could roll a smoke. She was a sweetheart.”

In other words, Amy Winehouse was a fast-tracked, foul-mouthed time bomb that everyone from Mos Def (going by another name here) to her father and Tony Bennett kept kicking down the road trying to cash in on her fame, persona and success without accounting for the consequences. The exceptions were chiefly her manager, Nick, whom she fired, her childhood friends Juliette and Lauren, and, tellingly, at one point anyway, Lucian, a Universal Music Group recording industry executive who insisted that she sign a contract to keep clean and sober before booking her on the Grammys (she signed and delivered—both in sobriety and appearance). In and out of bad relationships and a stoner marriage and rehab, becoming a cartoonish joke with her garish cosmetics which became a self-fulfilling imprisonment of self-hate, Amy Winehouse finally dovetails talent and tragedy and goes for a final nosedive, bookended by her hero worship of Tony Bennett, who comes off as somewhat complicit despite his polished efforts. Bennett at least gets the artist right when he describes her as “a true, natural jazz singer.”

That she never really sought to heal herself cannot be escaped. Neither can the fact that she never really had a model, friend or proper intervention for the help an addict needs from those who love the addict when she’s sober. Amy’s life ended on July 23, 2011 with a blood alcohol level 45 times higher than normal. That this intelligent, bright-eyed, British artist called her old friend and flatmate Juliette with pure clarity and said over and over that she was “sorry” days before she died—with her downfall constantly ridiculed by sniveling comics such as George Lopez at the Grammys and Jay Leno—proves only that inside the self-destroyer remained that girl who could sing with soul. Whether any good comes from Amy is up to those who know someone they love who is as artful a dodger as London’s lost singer.

Amy reminded me of the first time I heard “Rehab” in a dive bar in Silver Lake, with its energetic Wall of Sound bursting forth with this fresh, smoky voice that also sang jazz, blues and standards. I wondered then what would become of one who is celebrated with snide parody for living the life she portrayed. Amy brings to mind audiences turning the other cheek to Robin Williams‘ obvious despair, the cacophony of cell phone cameras when Heath Ledger‘s corpse came out on a New York City stretcher, and the endless taunting that people—sadly, intelligent people—do to flawed, damaged but talented celebrities such as Charlie Sheen, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and even to relatively unblemished artists such as Sam Smith. Amy revisits the short life of Amy Winehouse with honest, candid examination of facts and, through the words, pictures and lives of those she left behind, lets the awful truth speak, sing and be silent for what it is.

That the coarse, young modern female drank herself to death in a culture that now celebrates drunkenness and coarseness among young females may come as no shock. However, Amy, as its title suggests, urges the audience to never submit to coarseness and cynicism after the fact of a horrible, and stoppable, self-made death.

Taylor Swift’s Activism for Apple

TaylorSwift on TimeWhen an individual moneymaker takes a moral stand on principle, realizes it with action and wins, the activism ought to be studied as an example in success.

This week, recording artist Taylor Swift provides such an example. Swift, a pop country music star, recently took to Tumblr (a blogging platform) to write a letter of activism (read Swift’s letter here). Swift explains that Apple’s new Apple Music streaming service precludes payment to artists in the first three months. Swift argues that this is wrong. In a persuasive, simple letter implicitly based on egoism, not altruism, because she predicates the letter on achieving her own values in an explicit expression of magnanimity, Swift makes the case for what amounts to intellectual property rights. Swift advocates what Ayn Rand called the trader principle, the essence of capitalism. As Swift concludes her letter to Apple: “Please don’t ask [artists] to provide you with our music for no compensation.”

Besides Swift’s fundamentally acknowledged fact that Apple’s terms are Apple’s to set, what distinguishes Swift’s activist letter from other forms of celebrity activism is her recognition of the good for being good. Swift does not malign Apple. In fact, she titles the post “To Apple, Love Taylor” and proceeds to express her “reverence” for Apple’s innovation and achievements. This demonstrates an understanding that acting in accordance with the company’s professed philosophy of human progress through new ideas is consistent with trading value for value. Harnessing the power of an artist that leftists and racists should regard as a beneficiary of “white privilege” or being among some inexplicably causeless “one percent” of wealthy millionaires, Swift, who has previously expressed support for Barack Obama, offers a perfectly rational example of selfish activism.

The letter is selfish, as against self-centered (as she points out when she writes that the issue of paying artists “is not about me”, which in this context is true), because in writing it she seeks to gain, keep and advance her values; in this case, the ability of artists to earn money to create. In a wider sense, the successful artist posting such a letter deepens the bond with fans and adds credibility to his brand. Swift’s letter succeeds on a number of levels in dispelling the myth that capitalism and benevolence are incompatible. Swift gains value as described, the struggling, unknown writer gains, her competitors also gain, and so do her patrons, employees and partners. The customer gains with greater funding for all artists which leads to more creation, variety and competition. Apple, too, gains from the compliments, publicity and Swift’s endorsement for the new platform and a better grasp of what top artists want and how they may communicate.

Capitalism is, in fact, win-win.

Taylor Swift’s letter displays an understanding of this principle. She does not seek the unearned. She also does not merely “kill them with kindness”, as a cynic might claim. The letter, praising Apple for allegiance to progress and innovation, is not structured for unearned guilt, vanity or opportunism. Swift’s letter ends with a thought which begins with the word ‘please’ extended as a courtesy, not with an arbitrary demand that Apple has a moral duty to serve others and sacrifice its profit. Swift backs her words with action, withholding her property on principle. This is the essence of good, selfish, rational activism (read my thoughts on activism here) in a dispute among good, selfish, rational men.

Those inclined to flame, troll or otherwise rant against anyone who deviates in the slightest degree from one’s values ought to look at Taylor Swift’s letter and learn from her example. This is activism that succeeds. As Apple executive Eddy Cue posted today on Twitter (and, as I teach in my social media course, social media is a crucial, legitimate tool for selfish communication), after granting Swift’s request: “We hear you, [Taylor Swift]…Love, Apple.” The exchange, namely that they are free to have it, is why I love capitalism.

Jagged Little Pill at 20

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Rock’s seminal album Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette was released 20 years ago this week. Suitably, I remember my discovery of it as purely organic to my life. I was on the brink of turning 30, early in my career and writing about the news, sports and culture for a newspaper. I went dancing one night at a club near downtown Glendale with a co-worker from the newsroom. When the first single, “You Oughta Know”, started softly before unleashing cathartic expressions with strong, rising vocals and Dave Navarro’s looping guitar licks, I knew the song was part of something larger.

It was and it is and Jagged Little Pill ages well. Its brilliance lies in perfect craftsmanship as pop. Lyrics and music are highly intimate and introspective, yet, thanks to co-writer and producer Glen Ballard, the album is remarkably well made and accessible to general audiences.

Each song is a journey and a gem; like a careful, thoughtful step in the artist’s personal progression delivered, shared and expressed with precision, realism and an unyielding desire to grow, to live life to the fullest—for more of the best of everything. In essence, Jagged Little Pill relishes one’s greedy little thoughts on life.

I know that it’s not more complicated than that. Its tunes can, like some of my favorite pop, jazz and rock, be trite, cliched and tidy, which some people can’t stand. But each song, written or co-written by Morissette, contains insight and wisdom and is expressed with originality, honesty and sincerity, rare qualities in pop music, especially in the mid-1990s. Grunge, rap and filth came online back then (some of it with talent) and this encompasses some of Alanis Morissette’s vulgar lyrics, when the world’s bloodiest century was coming to a close and, while no one talked about it, it was abundantly clear that the West’s worst enemy was coming to attack.

The era’s Clintonian malaise and melancholy, or as Smashing Pumpkins put it, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, was everywhere, in the haunting “Disarm” and “1979”, in Soul Asylum’s heart-wrenching “Runaway Train” (1993) and in tunes by Goo Goo Dolls, Nirvana, Tori Amos and others. Alanis Morissette, contrary to the conventional notion that she was propelled by being an angry young woman, was different; in her upright “Hand in My Pocket” and other songs, while hard-edged rock is the genre, Alanis names the negative to become and stay positive.

The album’s unspoken theme is discovering the virtue of selfishness. Every line, thought, musing and idiosyncratic phrasing upswells toward personal growth and enlightenment with the singer-songwriter as the proper beneficiary of her own actions. She is an egoist, not an altruist. From her opening statement of awareness that the world—and this is the age of O.J. Simpson getting away with murder—is in deep trouble to the knowing, rational counsel to “swallow it down” and accept that life’s unfair in “You Learn”, Alanis goes by reason, not faith. She laments lies in “Forgiven” and croons in “Head Over Feet” about a man who offers her the promise of “something rational”. She is driven by her values, chosen values, including trying to help a lost friend in “Mary Jane” and make sense of her past to make a better future in “Ironic”, an often maligned or mocked and tragically underrated song about realignment with reality.

Jagged Little Pill is not a romantic record, with songs of bitter rejection such as “Right Through You” and “Wake Up”. But Alanis always ends up finding, or striving to find, the good and feeding it. This is a good idea 20 years later and will be 20 years from now, too, whether one is free to listen to music, including an album as free-wheeling as this record is, let alone debate its merits.

So, I’m glad I danced to “You Oughta Know” 20 summers ago, glad I bought the compact disc and played it over and over and packed it when I went to Europe and was almost booked on TWA 800—isn’t it ironic?—and had it to come home to so I could listen, enjoy and think about its meaning for years to come. I’m glad I saw Alanis perform in concert in Irvine when all she had was Jagged Little Pill.

I’m also glad I’ve followed Alanis Morissette in the intervening two decades. I don’t mind one bit if her Jagged Little Pill is 13 tunes of a well-produced, pop-rock middle finger at the status quo in the closing days of the 20th century. This is an outburst of outrage displayed to find the good, at a time when what was wrong with the world ought to have been evident to everyone and wasn’t. The world has gotten worse in the 20 years since Alanis Morissette’s biting Jagged Little Pill went on sale. Whatever the artist’s intention, her hugely successful album exists as an impassioned outcry against what went wrong, seeded with lessons in setting it right and the hard, fierce and unmistakable vow to never swallow poison without a fight.

Click here to buy Jagged Little Pill.

Related readings

Review: Alanis Morissette, Havoc and Bright Lights

Review: Sam Smith, In the Lonely Hour

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